Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images
As evidence of the decline of religious observance in American continues to mount even as cultural and political divisions become more intense and pervasive, a very old fear has arisen again. It is that in a thoroughly secularized society politics will begin to take on some of the absolutist features normally associated with religious claims of possessing ultimate truth.
For many years analysts have wondered if the savage nature of totalitarian movements of the left and right was owed to their occupation of metaphysical ground once held by supernatural religion. And there’s no question that both the classless, stateless society imagined by Marx as waiting for the human race at the end of history, and the Aryan Valhalla dreamed of by the Nazis for their own “master race,” were in appeal if not intention secular replicas of the Kingdom of God.
So it’s not surprising that Andrew Sullivan, in an Easter essay that begins with an insightful and moving tribute to his own inveterate Catholicism, enters the same dark woods of fear about politics raised to the level of religion:
[Religion] is about removing oneself from life while still living it: a pause, a grace-note, a moment when nothing is getting done. It is good to get out of the addled brain for a while, to live in the soul and the body alone. …
What we’re witnessing, it seems to me, is not a collapse in the religious impulse as such. The need to transcend, to find meaning, and purpose, is eternal for humans. What we’re witnessing is what happens when politics replaces or becomes a form of religion.
But out of apparent exasperation with all sorts of misplaced absolutes, Sullivan sets up an equivalence with which I cannot agree:
The fusion of evangelical Christianity with the Republican party blasphemously climaxed in the Trump cult. Among the Trump banners and a Confederate flags in the crowd that invaded the Capitol on January 6 was a flurry of wooden crosses. And in wokeness, the younger generation are quite obviously replicating previous religious movements in America. Look at the zeal in their eyes, the relentless search for heresy, the ostracization of sinners, the mass confessions of iniquity, and the need to ‘do the work’ every day to bring about the Kingdom of Anti-Racism.
Yes, secular progressive causes from “wokeness” to public health to voting rights are fed by inherent human longings for self-improvement, righteousness, solidarity and, well, progress itself. There are over-zealous and censorious social justice advocates just as there are over-zealous librarians who are censorious about noise and over-zealous chefs who are censorious about nutrition and table-scapes (though the collateral damage to their “victims” is obviously more innocent). Perhaps the “woke” are filling holes in their souls once filled by faith, and are engaged in crusades that lead to campus warfare rather than to Jerusalem. But by and large they do not profess that their certainties came down from heaven on tablets of stone, or that by smiting their enemies hip and thigh they are saving their souls. And that matters.
What has been most dangerous about the Christian Right before and after it succumbed to the “Trump cult” was that its prophets had so thoroughly confused the sacred and the profane that it made a habit of deifying mere secular concerns. I once had rural relatives who refused to observe daylight savings time because standard time was “God’s time.” Anything traditional was hallowed. And in the Church of the Day Before Yesterday, the cultural mores of 1950s middle-class America displaced the Christian gospel, making “family values” — meaning Dad as patriarch and Mom as reproductive vessel and homemaker and in general women and gay people and minorities quiet and knowing their place — the keys to the Kingdom. That the whole movement culminated in celebration of the Ur-heathen Donald Trump as national savior showed how perverse the whole enterprise had become.
So give me a thousand “woke” young militants over a single man in a pulpit proclaiming anyone’s — much less Trump’s — reelection as essential to the salvation of the human race. For that matter, I’d much prefer grim and censorious secularists to any Christian Left that would sanctify political goals I happen to share. Politicized religion can spoil both politics and religion, which is why the American tradition of separation of church and state is so essential to religious as well as civic freedom. As Sullivan rightly says: “It took centuries for Christianity to … reject earthly power as a distraction from what really matters, what really lasts. It would be a terrible shame if America threw that shimmering inheritance away.”
This Easter I am worshipping my risen Lord and Savior with not a bit of resentment of those who find meaning in secular pursuits or in the watery spirituality of the 21st century. I will even endeavor to maintain fellowship with Christians who seem to worship an angry God and look forward to a paradise that bears a great resemblance to a gated retirement community in Florida. And I will pray that even if our differences grow more bitter and unforgiving, we will never confuse culture war with holy war, or elections with the Eschaton.
Mail-in delays and recounts: Canada’s election tallying drags on.
Three days after Canada‘s federal election, the final tally of seats remained unclear on Thursday, with mail-in ballots still being counted in some regions and at least one electoral district facing an automatic recount.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were handed another minority mandate late on Monday, in an election that ended with all the major parties holding virtually the same number of seats they had before the vote was called.
A handful of seats remain too close to call, as election workers across the country continue to count ballots. Those tight races will not meaningfully impact the overall outcome.
“We’re on pace to have all results within five days of polling day, and the majority should be in by the end of today,” said Natasha Gauthier, an Elections Canada spokesperson.
The count is taking time due to both coronavirus protocols and the fact that votes are being counted locally while being monitored by political party representatives.
Trudeau will not speak to media until the results are all in, a Liberal spokesman said.
As of 1:30 p.m. EDT on Thursday (1730 GMT), the Liberals were elected or leading in 158 of the 338 seats. The official opposition Conservatives were leading in 119, the left-leaning New Democrats in 25 and the Greens holding just two. The Quebec-focused Bloc Quebecois looked set to take 34.
Graphic: Canada‘s provisional election results:
One electoral district faces an automatic recount, which occurs when the race is decided by less than 0.001% of all votes cast. Parties can also request recounts in very close races after the count is finalized.
(Reporting by Julie Gordon in Ottawa; Editing by Matthew Lewis)
Ocean politics, DNA history and the climate experiment: Books in brief – Nature.com
To Rule the Waves
Bruce D. Jones Scribner (2021)
The oceans are the key zone for potential military confrontation; some 85% of global commerce relies on them; around 90% of global data flows along undersea cables; oceans are central in the global fight over climate change. Those four simple facts are analysed in this penetrating historical and political study. Author Bruce Jones, director of the project on international order at Washington DC think tank the Brookings Institution, fears future oceanic conflict, especially now that COVID-19 has amplified existing international tensions.
The Secret of Life
Howard Markel Norton (2021)
The 1953 discovery of DNA’s double-helix structure might be one of science’s most fascinating and oft-told stories. Yet much about it is still contentious — even who termed it “the secret of life”. Historian of medicine Howard Markel’s fine book focuses on the role of Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray crystallography image of DNA — crucial to Francis Crick and James Watson’s breakthrough — was used without her permission. A hesitant Watson tells Markel that he was “honest but … you wouldn’t say I was exactly honorable”.
A Biography of the Pixel
Alvy Ray Smith MIT Press (2021)
Pixel is short for ‘picture element’: a misleading etymology, writes computer scientist Alvy Smith, who co-founded Pixar Animation Studios in 1979. Pixels are invisible, like computer bits, and not to be confused with “the little glowing areas on a screen, called display elements”. Hence this book’s technical core: how the former is converted to the latter, and the thinkers who paved the way. These range from Alan Turing to the undersung graphics mathematicians involved in the films Monsters, Inc., Toy Story, Finding Nemo and more.
Our Biggest Experiment
Alice Bell Bloomsbury Sigma (2021)
Climate campaigner and science writer Alice Bell’s nuanced and accessible history of the climate crisis describes the legacy of scientists including Eunice Foote, the first to warn that increasing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide would affect global temperatures, at an 1856 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. By ignoring Foote’s insight for so long, “we’ve inherited an almighty mess”, concludes Bell. But “a lot of tools” can alleviate the effects of global warming, if used wisely.
Being a Human
Charles Foster Profile (2021)
Vet and barrister Charles Foster won an Ig Nobel Prize for living in the wild as various animals, as described in Being a Beast (2016). In his latest book — controversial, yet oddly compelling — he lives as if in the upper Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Enlightenment periods, and compares human consciousness in each. Ancient hunter-gatherers, he argues, were superior to modern urban-dwellers for their “cosmopolitanism” and “motion”. He savages written language, invented post-Neolithic, for its “wholly spurious authority” over experience.
An anti-green backlash could reshape British politics – The Economist
WHATEVER A British voter’s natural political hue—Tory blue, Labour red or Liberal Democrat orange—these days it ends up green-tinged. The Tory government talks effusively about “building back greener”. Labour wants a “green industrial revolution”. Liberal Democrats have used their position as the third party to argue for everybody to go further and faster. And then there are all the people who want to raze the carbon economy to the ground the day after tomorrow: not just the Green Party but also extremist groupuscules such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain.
Which leaves a gap in the market for something different: anti-green politics. Brexit transformed Britain by tapping into ordinary people’s resentment of distant elites, and anti-greenery could do the same. Environmentalism is driven by populists’ two big bogeymen, scientific experts and multilateral institutions. Green campaigners vie to befuddle the public with acronyms and jargon. Multilateral institutions override democratic legislatures in order to co-ordinate global action. In the public mind, greenery is coming to mean global confabs that produce yet more directives, and protesters who block city centres and motorways.
Greenery suffers from the classic problems of technocratic policymaking, namely offering distant rewards in return for immediate sacrifices and imposing uneven costs. Over-50s, the most reliable voters, won’t be around to see the world boil. Poorer people are likely to suffer more than richer ones from the green transition, not just because they have less disposable income but also because they are more likely to work in the dirty economy. The impression of injustice is reinforced by the fact that many of the most vocal green activists have a material interest in the green economy as bureaucrats, lobbyists and entrepreneurs.
A fuel-price rise in 2018 inspired France’s gilets jaunes; Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and Finland’s Finns Party have lambasted green hysteria. In Britain, by contrast, anti-greenery is still nascent. Some on the Tory right have complained that their party is in the grip of the green lobby. A few MPs in the “red wall”—once-safe Labour seats in northern England that turned Tory over Brexit—have warned that green levies on driving could see those voters switch back again. The closure of some London streets to through-traffic has sparked protests.
But such rows are about to get a lot louder. Turbulence on the global energy market is drawing unflattering attention to British energy suppliers, which are struggling with the transition from coal- and gas-fired plants to renewables. The more the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, says about there being “absolutely no question of the lights going out”, the more consumers will worry. And other environmental policies on the horizon will also hit them hard. From 2030 the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned. The electric cars that will replace them are rapidly improving, but not yet as cheap or as convenient. For city-dwellers it is hard enough to find parking without having to look for a charging-point too, and long journeys require planning.
Since the discovery of gas in the North Sea in 1965, most British homes have used the fuel to heat their homes. But the government plans to take gas-fired boilers off the market in the coming years, to be replaced by hydrogen boilers or heat pumps. The date for the switchover is slipping, since neither technology is ready for mass roll-out. Air-source heat pumps are larger than gas boilers, produce lower temperatures and cost much more. People’s enthusiasm for greenery may reach its limits if familiar, well-functioning products are replaced by more expensive, inferior ones.
In the past decade climate-change denialism has given way to something cannier and harder to pin down. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party and a major force behind Brexit, claims that he is as green as the next man—indeed that he voted for the Green Party back in the 1980s—but that he’s in favour of “sensible environmentalism” rather than the establishment kind that taxes “poor people to give money to rich people and big corporations while China’s going to ignore it all”.
Anti-greens are also seeking to reshape politics indirectly: not just by creating new parties, but by changing the hue of the established ones from inside. For neither of Britain’s biggest parties is as deep-dyed green as they appear to onlookers. The Conservative Party certainly has big names who preach environmentalism, like Zac Goldsmith, an aristocratic Brexiteer. But it has always also been the party of homeowners who care about their energy bills, motorists who want to get the last mile from every gallon and older people who don’t want to change their ways. More recently, they have been joined by red wall voters with little spare cash. Labour, for its part, is an uneasy coalition of graduates, who cheer every green initiative, and lower-paid workers, who are nostalgic for the days of well-paid jobs in heavy industry and primarily concerned with making ends meet.
Hot air emissions
How to avert an anti-green backlash? Politicians need to avoid unforced errors, such as making everyone rip out perfectly good boilers before replacements are ready. They need to shield vulnerable groups from the costs of the energy transition, remembering how the mood turned against globalisation when politicians failed to honour promises to compensate the losers. They need to see the world through the eyes of people who accept that climate change is a problem but must ceaselessly struggle to get by in the here and now. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, won easy applause at a UN round table on climate action this week by expressing frustration that the “something” the world is doing to limit global warming is “not enough”. The audience he really needs to convince is the one that laughed along to his provocations before he re-entered Parliament in 2015, such as mocking wind power as too weak to pull the skin off a rice pudding.
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